Drama, Diligence, and Big Change

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If you want to lead big change, start by getting people's attention with something dramatic. Here's what Ren McPherson did when he took over as Chairman and CEO of Dana Corp.

It was December 8, 1972. I've read and heard several versions of this. What follows is the official corporate description that appears on Dana's web site.

"Newly elected Chairman and CEO Ren McPherson begins his tenure by burning the cumbersome manuals of policies and procedures. McPherson issues a one-page sheet of “Forty Thoughts” covering behavior and attitude."

Even in those pre-email days, you can be pretty sure that the story got around Dana's facilities in only a few moments. Today, a video would be up on YouTube before the close of business.

If you're going to lead big change you need some drama. You need to get people to pay attention. Then you need to make sure that your actions and your words send the key message over and over and over again.

When Alan Mulally took over at Ford, he knew there was one big, important thing he had to change about the culture. Detroit News reporter Bryce Hoffman describes the traditional Ford meeting as "political theater" where important truths simply were not told.

If Ford was going to succeed, executives would have to start telling the truth to each other about how things were going and do it publicly. Mulally certainly told Ford's executives that was what he expected, but they're heard that before. The executive who decided to test Mulally was Mark Fields.

At an executive meeting, he announced that he was delaying a product launch. You can imagine a very quiet room as every other executive waited to see what would follow. Mr. Mulally applauded. He praised Mr. Fields for reporting the delay. Within a couple of weeks, other executives were reporting problems.

At times like that it's easy to sit back and think the heavy lifting work of change is done and that henceforth progress will continue unabated. It's a powerful temptation, but if you want to lead big change, it's a temptation to avoid.

If you stop paying attention to what you say and do, the message of change will be drowned out by the din of the old culture. You have to walk the walk and talk the talk with unremitting diligence for as long as it takes for the change to become "the way we do things around here."

That could be a long time. Big initiatives take time. Alan Mulally isn't done talking the talk and walking the walk yet. His next big test is to see it all through to the end.

Boss's Bottom Line

Recipe for big change. Do something(s) dramatic. Walk the walk and talk the talk. Praise positive changes publically. Repeat until what was once new is now "the way we do things around here."

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